Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Feb. 27, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Steven Smith, last of the three remaining music-director candidates to conduct the Richmond Symphony this season, made a persuasive case for himself by making persuasive cases for Beethoven and Berlioz, and a compelling case for Shostakovich, in the first of two Masterworks concerts this weekend.

In Berlioz’s "Le Corsaire" Overture, Smith adopted a tempo that was animated but still broad enough to allow stuttering woodwind figurations to emerge with complete clarity. The string sonorities that he obtained in the Berlioz, and subsequently in Beethoven’s "Emperor" Concerto, had warmth and heft without turning mushy, and were balanced in a way that made the thinness of bass-string sound in the Carpenter Theatre far less pronounced than in other concerts the orchestra has given since the acoustic makeover and reopening of the hall. Winds and brass sounded without reticence, but without overbalancing strings.

Jon Nakamatsu, the piano soloist in the Beethoven, is widely lauded for his interpretations of Chopin, and one could hear why in the crystalline tone and flexible, singing phrasing he brought to the concerto’s lyrical passages, notably in the central adagio. The piano’s generally bright tone – probably a combination of Nakamatsu’s technique and the way piano sound is reflected in this hall – sapped the outer movements, especially the finale, of some of the rhetorical grandeur that the instrument typically projects in this work.

Smith’s treatments of the Beethoven and Berlioz showed gratifying attention to detail and an interpretive approach that straddles classicism and romanticism in pacing, phrasing, accenting and sonority. His treatment of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony showed real passion.

The Shostakovich Fifth, typically, is not music to love so much as music to experience in awe. In a really good performance, it is music to be drawn deeply into. This performance was not just really good; it was the most intensely focused I’ve ever heard, live or recorded, from Russian or non-Russian musicians.

From the portentous opening exchange between high and low strings to the brassy, darkly triumphant climax – and most tellingly, in the spare, bleak and distant-sounding string passages of the symphony’s largo movement – Smith and the orchestra captured Shostakovich’s distinctive emotional and spiritual tone, in which tormented silence shadows even the most exuberant or aggressive outburst.

The musicians exploited this work’s contrasts of volume, from barely audible to very loud, and its fibrous sound textures – notably in the low winds and keyboards, harps and percussion – to great effect. Solos sounded, as they really must in this piece, like starkly candid disclosures of very private feelings.

In my experience, admirers of Shostakovich are not over-represented in the Richmond Symphony audience. Still, this audience listened to the Fifth in deep concentration, almost as if lives depended on the outcome (as the composer’s life may well have depended on the reception this work got in Stalinist Russia of the 1930s), and rewarded the performance with a roaring, richly deserved ovation.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);